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29 November 2014 Last updated
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Grant MacDonald on doing business in the UAE

He first came to the Middle East 34 years ago, sweating in his heavy London suit, but silversmith Grant Macdonald is still busy making bejewelled swords, hand-crafted clock cases and coffee pots. Here he tells Mike Peake why he loves business in the UAE

By Mike Peake
23 Aug 2013 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Supplied picture Image 1 of 4
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  • 'I still go to museums, still take hundreds of photographs. The people I deal with hark back to tradition and I major in that.'

    Source:Supplied picture Image 3 of 4
  • Grant prizes his attention to detail when it comes to anything he is making.

    Source:Supplied picture Image 4 of 4

Once every four weeks, give or take a day or two, renowned British silversmith Grant Macdonald bids farewell to colleagues at his busy London workshop and sets off for the airport to begin his journey to the Middle East. He’s been doing the same run since 1979 – an astonishing 34 years – and if he ever gets tired of it (unlikely), he really only has himself to blame.

Cutting a dashing figure in his suit during those first early visits to the Gulf, Grant was quick to establish himself as the most eager, most willing and most talented young silversmith around. Diamond-encrusted sword to be presented to a president? No problem. Magnificently ornate coffee pot that looks like it could have been made locally in the 1700s? Piece of cake.

For Grant, his commitment to ‘being there’ so regularly – coupled with a fervent interest in the region’s rich design history – has meant a personal and insightful touch that is second to none. And today his contacts book is bulging. Whether it’s a ceremonial dagger, a miniature grazing oryx or one of the beautiful silver horses he’s become so well known for, Grant’s creations have brought him a host of Middle Eastern admirers and seen him welcomed into palaces from Qatar to the UAE. “I’m working on seven gold swords right now,” he smiles, as he puts down his tools for a while to talk to Friday. “I try to make the best of the best.”

What are your earliest memories of The Gulf?

My first visits to the emirates seem like hundreds of years ago because of the rate of progress. I remember when I first went to the Dubai Museum, which is still there of course, with its beautiful walkways. When I first went it was just sand. I have a snapshot in time, I guess, of those earliest visits, and I’m amazed by new changes whenever I go.

The development must seem hard to keep up with.

I’m in awe of the place, Dubai especially, and when I go now I feel like a tourist. I look around and go, “Well, that wasn’t there before!” I remember the first thing that struck me upon arriving in Abu Dhabi was how green it was. The late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan was a great visionary, of course, and set about greening up the emirates. When you arrived at the airport and came off the first roundabout it was tree-lined and grass-lined all the way into town and it seemed, after flying over the desert, absolutely fantastic. He wanted it to be beautiful and his idea of beautification ran all the way to the sort of work that I made for him because he had this huge attention to detail, almost a falcon’s eye. He enjoyed his connections to the life of the Bedouin and so everything I made for him involved lots of research, and by getting it right so many times I was blessed with his patronage for 20-something years.

What was your big break in the Gulf?

I was at a palace in 1981 – it was a neighbour of the UAE – and I’d delivered some pieces to the person I was dealing with. He offered to show me their top gift, the gift they gave to visiting presidents and so on, and he gave me a wooden box. Inside the box was a sword with decorative wire. I said that I could make beautiful, hand-crafted swords, even though it was a slight fib, as I’d never made one, but I knew I could do it.

What happened?

He told me to come back with a design, so 
I disappeared to my hotel room for three or four days, drew a sword, and came back with it. It was 18-carat gold with diamonds and rubies, and he said, “We’ll be absolutely amazed if you can do it.”

I came back to London and in my workshop I started to make it. Six or eight weeks later 
I took it back, and it looked exactly like the drawing, absolutely terrific, and the man said whatever the Arabic equivalent of “Wow!” is. 
He told me to go back to the hotel and they’d contact me. Well, three or four days passed and I was getting edgy because all of my money 
had gone into this. I phoned up and they said, “Maybe tomorrow.” I later learned that they had sent it to Bahrain where there’s an assay office to check that my gold was good, and they also sent it – personally, by hand – to the UAE to check the stones. So this took time.

What was the verdict?

Well, when they told me what had happened I was aghast but they were determined it had to be right, of course, because it was for the boss. I said, “Are you going to buy it?” and they said, “Yes. And will you make us 30 more?” It was a life-changing commission, more than quadrupling my turnover, and I walked out of the meeting three inches off the carpet. 
I proved I could do it, and I’d been rewarded most handsomely.

Are Middle Eastern clients looking for ‘the British style’, or are the commissions usually in keeping with what local craftsmen might make?

I learned pretty early on that it’s better to design and make things people want to buy than things you want to sell! I think the first coffee pot I took over – a classic, London-made silver coffee pot that I would sell in the UK – was greeted by the words, “Very nice, but we want a dallah-shaped coffee pot.” So I came back a month later with the best dallah-shaped coffee pot they’d ever seen because I’d taken all of the details from the beautiful collection they have at the Dubai Museum. They ordered 50.

Is that eagerness to please part of why Middle Eastern clients took to you so well?

Yes, and I really got into the culture of it, taking photos of buildings, doors, everything, and I had hundreds of pictures to help with the details. I could take out a piece I’d made and say, “The design of this is based on this palace because it has the details that came from Zanzibar,” and they’d say, “Really?” I’d put a lot of effort into my research, so I could ensure that a client could confidently give a gift knowing that it was Emirati, for example, in design.

What else made you fit in?

I’d be boiling in my suit while my colleagues from across Europe would be in their desert safari suits, which was acceptable, but I think 
I stood out. I’d be sweating profusely and they probably all thought I was mad, but I was also always ready for the next opportunity.

I usually keep a suitcase in the office, and 
I remember one time getting an enquiry for a commission and they spoke to lots of people in London and Paris and asked me when I could come. I said, “How about 9.30am?” and they said, “Yes, but what day?” I said, “Tomorrow,” and I got the work. “I arrived, they said, “Can you do this?” I said, “Yes,” and I got the job – a sword, I think. I’m still there now every four weeks or so, somewhere in the Gulf. I’m still drawn to it, I still go to the museums, still take hundreds of photographs. The people I deal with hark back to tradition and quality, and I major in that.

What’s popular today?

There’s probably not one thing – I’m working on 40 clock cases that are either modern in an Arabic way or have camels or beautiful horses. I’m making a lot of tableware, handmade in silver using not only traditional techniques but modern technology and making patterns that look Emirati or Qatari or whatever the customer wants.

It sounds like tradition is everything

Even now, when you look up at the skyscrapers, you have to come down to ground level where there are people, and they want traditional things. It’s not all about Bugatti Veyrons and construction, traditions will go on and I hope to be able to service that. And my son, George, who is in the business and is only 33, will hopefully be able to service that for the next 30 years.

By Mike Peake

By Mike Peake